Syria, Rwanda, and the difficulties of preventing atrocities

by Alan Cohen

Like many people, I am continually disturbed by the news of atrocities coming out of Syria these days. I would love to find a way for the violence to end and peace to be restored. But the more I think about these issues, the more depressed I become. I simply do not think anyone knows how to solve this problem, or many others.

I recently heard an interview of CBC radio with Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian general who tried to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 but was ordered to stand down by his higher-ups in the UN. (For those who saw the movie Hotel Rwanda, he was played by Nick Nolte.) Dallaire argues forcefully that it is a lack of political will, and a lack of concern for places where powerful nations do not have strong interests, that results in atrocities such as those he witnessed in Rwanda. I am sure there is a lot to be said for this.

But I also do not think that simply having the political and military will to intervene is often enough. Rwanda is perhaps the best example. (For those who would like to learn more about the genocide there, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is a must-read.) Dallaire and Gourevitch show clearly how decisive action by world powers could have prevented the killing of some 800,000 civilians. But what they don’t address is, What then? Stopping a genocide short-term may not be productive if there is no long-term political stability.

In Rwanda, the genocide occurred while a small, Tutsi-led rebel army was challenging the majority Hutu government. The rebel army, though small, was led by the competent general Paul Kagame. One of the ironies of the genocide is that the majority Hutus, who committed the genocide, seem to have been oblivious to the threat of the rebels as they went about killing civilians, and the genocide ended because the rebels won control of the country. Since then, Rwanda has been under Kagame’s control – by most accounts somewhat repressive but stable and with strong economic growth. There has been some retribution against Hutus, but much less than might have been feared, especially since many of the war criminals are living in refugee camps across the Congo border and still make occasional forays into Rwanda to kill Tutsis.

So let’s imagine the counterfactual. (This is the prerequisite to second-guessing past decisions.) Imagine that the UN had intervened forcefully and stopped the genocide. The genocide would have been stopped, but so would Kagame’s rebel army. The UN would have ended up essentially controlling the country until some sort of peace accord could be reached. But what peace accord? Some of those negotiating would have been the ones who (in reality, not the counterfactual) were responsible for the genocide, and presumably they would have tried to ensure their eventual ability to commit the genocide. Tutsis are only 15% of the country, so democracy is far from a guarantee against genocide. Would UN or US soldiers have been expected to stay indefinitely to keep the peace?

These questions don’t have clear answers. It is almost certain that the genocide could have been prevented short-term, but it is also likely that this would resulted in a less stable government long-term, with a high likelihood for the genocide to just happen later or in a different way. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than the genocide, but it’s not impossible that the ultimate outcome could have been worse, and that it would then have been the responsibility of those who intervened (regardless of their intentions). I am not saying we should not have intervened, but I am saying that we are profoundly ignorant about what to do in this kind of situation.

The fundamental problem is that we rarely understand the local complexities of these conflicts. Our news media like to give us clear, simple story lines even when the reality does not correspond. In almost every conflict Americans can pick out who they think are the good guys and the bad guys, based on how our media report things. Almost always, those presented as the bad guys have been doing more of the killing, but we rarely ask ourselves the relevant counterfactuals: in some rare cases, it’s even possible that if the “bad guys” stopped the killing, there would be a worse genocide in the other direction.

The media narrative we see then sets the stage for public pressure to intervene, even though the long-term consequences of intervention are far from clear. In Syria, for example, a recent Slate article by famed diplomat Christopher Hill suggests that our perception of the dynamics are very different from the Syrian perception: Syrians see the rebels are essentially Sunnis who want to impose a less tolerant sectarian regime. If the West intervenes, what happens? Do we install the Sunnis and then let them take vengeance against the Alawites, Christians, and Kurds who opposed and killed them? Do we impose a democracy, with similar likely results? Do we keep peacekeepers there indefinitely? If nothing else, Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us humbling lessons about our ability to understand and affect the internal dynamics of such countries.

Does this just mean that we should accept genocide or other mass atrocities? No, not at all. But what it does mean is that the current system of addressing these sort of problems is largely ineffective. If we want to stop major war crimes, we will need to have other strategies than those that currently exist. In particular, we need to be able to impose both (a) a strong disincentive for any rulers contemplating atrocities, and (b) a way to impose or implement a stable long-term government in conflict zones. My next post is about how we might achieve this.

What are your thoughts on the challenges involved in preventing atrocities? Should we have acted in Rwanda? Should we act now in Syria, or in Sudan, or in the Congo? I’d love to hear your thoughts.